'Absenteeism' takes center stage in Colorado governor's race, but are the claims true?

DENVER – Attendance records for their respective jobs as state treasurer and 2nd Congressional District congressman have become a significant point of contention in recent weeks between Republican Walker Stapleton and Democrat Jared Polis as they square off in the race to be Colorado’s next governor.

Stapleton’s campaign seized on numbers from a website that tracks congressional roll call votes to note that Polis missed about one-third of votes between April and June of this year – in the final weeks before the gubernatorial primaries – and about 5 ½ percent of roll call votes that have taken place since he took office in 2009.

And Democrats and Stapleton opponents over the past few weeks have rekindled stories about Stapleton’s attendance record at PERA board meetings and anecdotes about not seeing him at his office at the Capitol very often over his two terms as state treasurer.

“In the 4 years I’ve spent working at the State Capitol, I’ve never seen @walkerstapleton in the building,” Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, tweeted last week in regards to a story about the audit of the Great Colorado Payback, one of the major programs the treasurer oversees.

The portrayals by both campaigns of the opposing candidates, and by political committees running advertisements against both candidates, have attempted to show Colorado voters that neither Stapleton nor Polis is fit to replace the term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Attacks on Stapleton attendance date to 2014

Democrats have tried unsuccessfully before to try and defeat Stapleton by trying to make his attendance record stick in the minds of voters.

In the runup to the 2014 election, Stapleton’s challenger at the time, Democrat Betsy Markey, ran an advertisement in which she said that Stapleton was often only swiping in at the Capitol about 10 days of month and “often skipping the office for weeks at a time.”

At the time, Stapleton said he used the public entrance because it was closer to his parking spot on the southwest side of the Capitol and he denied missing work. Stapleton eventually defeated Markey 50 percent to 45 percent, winning by about 97,000 votes.

Colorado State Patrol, whose Executive Security Unit is in charge of all security at the Capitol and its four private and two public entrances, says that keycard logs aren’t the only way to tell if someone is at work regularly at the Capitol either.

Logs of keycard and access code usage at the private doors of the Capitol, which can only be used by state employees and lawmakers, show that Stapleton hasn’t used his keycard or access code once during his second term in office, which CSP confirmed was the case.

While several state officials and employees said they typically used the private entrances, several said they also used the public entrances and flashed their state ID badges to the troopers at the door to get inside without keycards or access codes. CSP said that was “not uncommon.”

“Troopers have photo catalogues of all members and make sure the necessary security protocols are enforced to ensure they are entitled to access the building. State employees are asked to display their photo ID badge to gain access to the building,” CSP Trooper Gary Cutler said in a statement. “They must physically display their badge to the Colorado State Patrol. As our Troopers become familiar with the state employees and elected officials, for example the Governor, they can be let in because of our familiarity with them and their position in the state government.”

There is no log that keeps track of which employees use the public entrances and flash their employee badges to get into work.

Asked to respond to the keycard logs and accusations by Democrats, Stapleton’s campaign pointed Denver7 to a story published earlier this week by Colorado Politics in which the author wrote that “Democrats are trying to feed a malnourished narrative that Stapleton has been a no-show treasurer. … The proof of that is anecdotal and dizzy with spin.”

And Stapleton’s campaign spokesman, Jerrod Dobkin, sent Denver7 the following statement: “As the Colorado State Patrol confirmed, Walker uses the south entrance to enter the Capitol.” However, CSP did not confirm that Stapleton uses the south entrance, only that it was possible to use the public entrances without a keycard if a state employee ID is shown. Logs from 2011, when Stapleton used his keycard, shows he almost always used the entrance on the south side of the building.

Outgoing Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, this week doubled down on Stapleton’s attendance and work with lawmakers, however. Duran is term-limited after this year.

“Walker himself is a person I just have not seen a lot in the last eight sessions that I’ve been here,” Duran said. “And when you’re governor, you have to work with the legislature on both sides and do a significant amount of work to be able to get agendas through.”

Republicans Denver7 spoke with for this story said that was an unfair characterization, though, and said that the attacks on his work on PERA, which have been ongoing for months, were misguided.

Sen. Jack Tate, who was among those praised for his work on the end-of-session PERA deal, told Denver7 that Stapleton was “very important in making sure we got a good policy.”

Democrats say Polis’ record comparisons unfair

The attacks on Polis’ attendance on congressional roll call votes stem from analysis from GovTrack, a company that tracks the number of missed votes by members of Congress, among other things.

The website says that Polis missed 375 of 6,892 roll call votes between when he took office in January 2009 and September 2018. That number, 5.4 percent, is “much worse” than the median of 2.4 percent of other currently-serving members of Congress, according to the website.

The website shows that he missed 33.2 percent of the 184 House roll call votes that took place between April and June of this year, though that was also the final weeks before Colorado’s June 26 primary. The website shows that Polis missed just 12 votes in the three months prior and that he hasn’t missed a single vote since the beginning of July.

“Jared commutes thousands of miles to Washington and has made 94.5 percent of his 6,879 votes, and was even on a flight to D.C. at 6:15 a.m. the morning after he won the Democratic primary,” Polis’ campaign spokesperson, Mara Sheldon, told Colorado Politics in response to its story about the numbers.

But Colorado Republican Party Chairman Jeff Hayes said that was an excuse.

“The fact that votes happen in Washington is a ridiculous, pathetic excuse,” Hayes said. “That’s true for every congressman. Voting in Washington is Polis’ job.”

But Democrats have stuck to their guns this week, stumping for Polis and going after Stapleton’s attendance twice in news conferences at the Capitol.

“[Stapleton] did not show up a whole lot for a lot of important issues, and I feel so strongly about making sure that Jared Polis is our next governor because Jared Polis has been showing up for years,” Duran said.

Polis' campaign also launched a website this week asking "Where is Walker?" which attempts to highlight what Democrats say are his absences. And on Friday, the Colorado Democratic Party hosted a news conference at Stapleton’s Capitol parking space in which the speakers highlighted what the party says has been his continued absences. It also sent out photos taken at random times over the past two weeks showing Stapleton's empty parking space at the building.

According to campaign finance tracker Sandra Fish, money continues to pour into the race to replace the term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper. Polis put another $5.5 million into his campaign and spent about $4.8 million—mostly in TV ads. Stapleton raised about $345,000 and spent mostly on signs as the Republican Governors Association carries most of the spending on a slew of advertisements against Polis and for Stapleton. The spending and attacks are expected to continue up through Election Day.

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